There's one image in particular that makes me cry every time I revisit it.
Last Saturday, as I raced from Lafayette, LA, to my home in New Orleans' Lower Garden District against at least 65 miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic -- I had to go back for the cat and the computer before reluctantly evacuating -- I passed an old black man, a neighbor of mine, and watched him put on a hat that matched what was certainly his best suit before he got into his white Cadillac, which was packed to the roof with stuff. As he pulled away, I saw him cross himself. I think that was the first time I felt afraid.
As I write this, five days later, fear has given way to heartbreak, frustration and utter confusion. Drive east or west? Stay with friends or family? Continue to try to work from here, or move on?
I evacuated with a friend to Oxford, MS -- "A Nice Place to Live," the sign says, a little smugly in light of things. There, we set up camp in a coffee shop for a few days, trying to locate friends, trying to figure out if our bank accounts were still operable, trying to find out where you could and couldn't get gas.
Sitting at the Uptown Coffee Shop off of Courthouse Square, I feel like a teenage girl whose heart has been broken, shoehorning the meaning of every song to fit my particular situation, bursting into uncontrollable sobs at the smallest gesture of kindness -- or at the stories of other people I meet here. One little boy from Pascagoula played with my cat as his mother tried to explain to him why his grandpa wasn't coming to meet them as planned -- he hadn't made it out of Biloxi. They haven't heard any news from him yet. Next door, a restaurant maitre'd let me use the phone, bringing me coffee and cookies.
A growing number of New Orleans expats are being generously absorbed by the local population -- restaurants and stores offer discounts to anyone fleeing the destruction; strangers give travelers places to stay; air-conditioned coffee shops provide free wireless and waive the no-pet rule for my cat as I type this. But after five days of anguish and incredibly tense uncertainty, even the lucky ones are getting cranky.
At Touro Infirmary in New Orleans, where I've worked for the past three years, reports said no one had shown up to evacuate 100 ICU patients, as promised. I am wondering about my friend and co-worker Rita Charles, who may or may not have evacuated to Houston. She and I used to enjoy solving New Orleans' many problems over Chinese take-out. She grew up on the same sugar plantation where her uncle and grandfather had been sharecroppers; her great-grandfather was a slave. Rita's stories always reminded me that history in New Orleans was never flat or far away -- it was still, always in full color, three-dimensional, available to you in a conversation if you cared to hear about it.
A big part of that history is that a mostly black and poor population had been oppressed and exploited here for centuries, and certainly mistrust of authority was unlikely to abate in the midst of crisis. Now, with all the professional classes, both white and black, removed, there's no buffer left. Once again, the victims are criminals for being victims.
The glibness of many media accounts hurts: "The Superdome never provided much protection for the Saints, and now it's not providing much of anything for the thousands of people seeking refuge there...," wrote one editor in Mississippi. What hurts worse is knowing how many people don't understand what is being lost. Maybe none of us do.
Last night I arrived at a friend's place in St. Martinville after a grueling drive through felled trees and abandoned cars along Highway 55. Twice I waited for half an hour in state police-guarded gas stations in Mississippi. The chaos there grimly hinted at what lay just 50 miles further south. Even though I can hear helicopters overhead, I'm surprised at how far from New Orleans I feel right now. It's weird to realize how not like New Orleans everywhere else is.
This is from an e-mail I wrote from Oxford to a friend stranded in New York on Monday, when we still thought we might have been spared "the worst":
"I'm starting to hate how little the rest of the world knows about New Orleans, and about hurricanes, and about life outside the tower. One newscaster asked which direction do hurricanes turn, and I wanted to spit at the screen. COUNTERCLOCKWISE, you nimwit, don't you know ANYthing???!! . . . I can't wait to get back. xoxo, c."
Most everyone I know got out in time and are helplessly watching the water rise on the screens of their laptops or on cable TV in hotel rooms. There's no consistency at all to my thinking -- I go from "I've always thought Mayor Nagin was a fine dresser" when I see him being interviewed on CNN to "I wonder how many people are dead or dying" to "I wish I packed something other than four pairs of flip flops" to "I can't believe we lost an entire city."
One national newscaster said of New Orleans, "I've never seen anything like this, not in this country." All I could think was how that had been true even before, and how tragic it is the rest of the country is only now realizing it.
I know I am lucky. I don't feel lucky right now, but I know that I am. Both for knowing New Orleans, and for being able to leave.
Charlotte native Cynthia Joyce is a New Orleans-based free-lance writer and contributor to Creative Loafing. Our hearts are with Cynthia and her countless neighbors.